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Global Look at Racism Hits Many Sore Points

March 4, 2001

Global Look at Racism Hits Many Sore Points


UNITED NATIONS, March 1 -- A conference on racism this summer could be one of the most explosive meetings this organization has ever held, with moves afoot to cast globalization as a racial issue and to demand reparations for the slave trade and colonialism.

Though the conference is still six months away, the agenda is already being passionately debated, and an increasingly broader range of issues is falling under the rubric of race.

The meeting to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7 was first proposed by developing nations led by Cuba, and it was always expected to have something of an anti-Western bias.

But the opportunity to air grievances rarely heard on an international platform has been seized by groups in developing nations too, from China to Chile, that want to force often hidden and extraordinarily sensitive issues into the discussion.

Beyond consideration of the North- South hemispheric divide as a color line, those issues include treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers in developed countries, the caste system in India and contemporary slavery in Africa as well as discrimination in Latin America and parts of the Caribbean against people of African descent.

Governments in some regions have been fighting consideration of many of those issues. But human rights groups, often linking through the Internet, have gained more leverage than ever against the governments that have elbowed them out of the spotlight in the past.

The aim, the human rights advocates say, is to demonstrate that racism is an international phenomenon that manifests itself in many forms. And they point to the full title of the event the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to buttress their argument. Two earlier meetings held in 1978 and 1983 were more narrowly focused.

"The last two conferences on racism were about foreign policy," said Gay J. McDougall, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington. "The first one was on decolonization and the second one was on apartheid. But this one is in everybody's back yard, and there's a lot of nervousness about it."

Ms. McDougall is among those pressing for strong international action on the slave trade and the legacy of colonialism on behalf of people of African descent all over the Western Hemisphere. But she has also backed calls to put the Indian caste system, which human rights groups say affects between 100 million and 200 million people, on the conference agenda, over the strong objection of the Indian government.

Smita Narula, who has been studying caste for Human Rights Watch in New York, said that "for Asia, caste has become coterminus with race inasmuch as it defines the exclusion of a people based on their descent." But so far, she said, Asian governments have succeeded in keeping the issue out of conference documents.

Representatives of governments will begin a four-day meeting in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss the conference agenda and the content of documents to be issued in Durban. Some new issues have been assured a place in the conference, and battle lines have been drawn for others in four regional meetings in France, Senegal, Chile and Iran.

In Strasbourg, France, the issue of Europeans' treatment of Roma, or Gypsy, people was put on the agenda by governments themselves. In Santiago, Chile, strong lobbying by African-American groups gave new visibility to racial discrimination in Latin America. And in Dakar, Senegal, where delegates were very strongly in favor of reparations for the trans- Atlantic slave trade, the new president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, cautioned the conference against looking only to history when examining Africa's problems. Ethnic intolerance and the continuation of slavery are still issues.

"The big story for me," said Ms. McDougall who is also a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and attended the Santiago meeting "was the cross-regional discourse that was generated in a new way among African-descended communities throughout the hemisphere, the poorest of the poor."

When the meeting was over, she said, the topic of discrimination against black Latin Americans, which was not in the draft of the regional platform, had been added. "It was a recognition for the first time in a multilateral document in Latin America that racism was an issue of current salience," she said.

The Tehran meeting, grouping the Middle East and Asia, was the most contentious, and there was a move to revive something of the old cold war shibboleth of Zionism as racism.

Though the word Zionism was not used, official delegations urged the Durban conference to demand an end to the "foreign occupation" of Jerusalem and characterized Israeli domination of Palestinian areas as "a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity, a form of genocide, and a serious threat to international peace and security."

Kishore Mahbubani, the author of "Can Asians Think?" and Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview that "racism is a sunrise issue."

"It is a natural result of a shrinking globe," he added. "Races that in a sense never had contact with each other are thrown together in close proximity in a new neighborhood. The first sign of this is the new wave of immigrants."

But most controversial is an international movement to make concrete demands for reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and for some form of compensation for centuries of colonialism.

Mary Robinson, formerly the president of Ireland and now the United Nations commissioner for human rights, generally supports such demands, particularly in finding some form of recompense for slavery. "That trauma is still there," she said in an interview, "and it's deep, and it hasn't been properly acknowledged."

Mrs. Robinson said the conference could achieve concrete results just by urging the enforcement of existing laws and international conventions against bias and discrimination. "About 85 percent of measures that can be taken are already in force or will be agreed on without difficulty," she said. "Then there will be a number of issues on which political leadership will be needed.

"One of them will be how we find the language to condemn in full terms the evil of slavery, returning to the issue of compensation for past practices.

"It may sound strange that we still have to do that, but in fact we need to close off a period and say that this exploitation was in real terms a crime against humanity when it took place and that it has had an effect into this century. The more generous and open the condemnation is, the less I believe there will be a push to focus on precise monetary compensation."

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